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Northern Research Station
11 Campus Blvd., Suite 200
Newtown Square, PA 19073
(610) 557-4017
(610) 557-4132 TTY/TDD

Sustaining Forests

Computer-Coded Content Analysis as a Research Method

Background

The news media play an important role in public debates about issues such as forest policy and management. Various media serve as a direct forum for public discourse (through editorials, letters to the editor, etc.) and also report on discussions occurring in other forums such as public meetings and hearings, legislatures, the courts, demonstrations, and protests. Analysis of news media content thus allows us to take the pulse of ongoing public debate about social issues and to track changes in the debate over time.

Analysis of news media content has repeatedly produced results that parallel the findings of attitude surveys for many public policy issues, including environmental and natural resource issues. Studies have found that the news media strongly influence agenda setting for public policy issues; that is, there is a relationship between the emphasis that the media give to an issue and how prominent the topic is among the general public. Therefore, analysis of the public debate about social issues in the news media is not simply ‘‘media analysis’’; it is a window into the broader social debate and a way to gauge, indirectly, public attitudes and values.

InfoTrend® software

The InfoTrend® software and method has been used successfully to predict public opinion based on analysis of news media accounts on a wide range of topics. The InfoTrend® method involves the creation of customized ‘‘lexicons’’ of words and phrases related to particular concepts of interest and then the development of computer instructions called ‘‘idea transition rules’’ that specify how various concepts represented by the lexicons are combined to generate new, more complex concepts. For example, a lexicon of terms representing the concept ‘‘damage’’ (e.g., decimate, degrade, destroy) could be combined with a lexicon of terms representing ‘‘ecological objects’’ (e.g., ecosystem, forest, habitat) to code for the concept ‘‘ecological damage.’’

The four main steps of the InfoTrend® method are: (1) downloading textual data; (2) filtering the downloaded text; (3) developing the lexicons and idea transition rules to code the text; and (4) checking the validity of the coding.

1) Downloading Data
Data for the analysis is downloaded from an online commercial database.  The search extracts stories that focus on the specific topic(s) of interest. The text can be restricted to that within 100 words of the search terms in order to reduce the amount of irrelevant text retrieved.

2) Filtering Text
A filtering process removes stories not within the scope of the study.  A second filtering process can remove paragraphs within stories that are not relevant to the study.

3) Developing Lexicons and Idea Transition Rules
The coding scheme is the foundation of any content analysis. In the InfoTrend® method, the coding scheme is developed through the creation of lexicons and idea transition rules. The development of the lexicons and rules is an iterative process with random samples of paragraphs being used to develop, test, and then modify the lexicons and rules.

4) Checking Validity
In content analysis, a coding scheme is considered valid to the extent that it accurately measures the concepts it was intended to measure. After the final refinements to the values coding scheme are completed, the validity of the scheme was assessed by calculating Krippendorff’s alpha. Alpha scores of at least 0.80 indicate an acceptable reliability rate.

More Information

The above discussion was taken from the following journal article. See the article for examples and citations.

Webb, Trevor J.; Bengston, David N.; Fan, David P. 2008. Forest value orientations in Australia: an application of computer content analysis. Environmental Management. 41: 52-63.

Our Research

Over the last 20 years, we have used the InfoTrend software and computer content analysis to study dozens of media and public discussions on a range of topics including:

Research Results

Webb, Trevor J.; Bengston, David N.; Fan, David P. 2008. Forest value orientations in Australia: an application of computer content analysis. Environmental Management. 41: 52-63.

Johnson, Jayne Fingerman; Bengston, David N.; Fan, David P.; Nelson, Kristen C.  2006.  U.S. Policy Response to the Fuels Management Problem: An Analysis of the Public Debate About the Healthy Forests Initiative and the Healthy Forests Restoration Act.   In: Andrews, Patricia L.; Butler, Bret W., comps. 2006. Fuels Management-How to Measure Success: Conference Proceedings. 28-30 March 2006; Portland, OR. Proceedings RMRS-P-41. Fort Collins, CO: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. p. 59-66.

Bengston, David N.; Potts, Robert S.; Fan, David P.; Goetz, Edward G.  2005.  An analysis of the public discourse about urban sprawl in the United States: Monitoring concern about a major threat to forests.   Forest Policy and Economics 7 (2005) 745-756.

Fan, David P.; Bengston, David N.; Potts, Robert S.; Goetz, Edward G.  2005.  The rise and fall of concern about urban sprawl in the United States: an updated analysis.   In: Bengston, David N., tech. ed. Policies for managing urban growth and landscape change: a key to conservation in the 21st century. Gen. Tech. Rep. NC-265. St. Paul, MN: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, North Central Research Station. 1-7.

Bengston, David N.; Webb, Trevor J.; Fan, David P.  2004.  Shifting forest value orientations in the United States, 1980-2001: A computer content analysis.   Environmental Values 13:373-392.

Bengston, David N.; Fan, David P.  2002.  The Recreational Fee Demonstration Program on the national forests: and updated analysis of public attitudes and beliefs, 1996-2001.   Res. Pap. NC-340. St. Paul, MN: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, North Central Research Station. 12 pp. http://www.treesearch.fs.fed.us/pubs/11782

Bengston, David N.; Xu, George; Fan, David P.  2001.  Attitudes toward ecosystem management in the United States, 1992-1998.   Society and Natural Resources. Volume 14. 2001. pp. 471-487.

Research Participants

Principal Investigators

  • David N. Bengston, Research Forester, U.S. Forest Service, Northern Research Station
  • David P. Fan, President of InfoTrend, Inc., and Professor of Genetics, Cell Biology and Development and Adjunct Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota

Last Modified: 10/19/2010